One takeaway from a Leader-Telegram story about a possible expansion of L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library is decidedly positive: Use of the Eau Claire facility’s services has been on a steady rise.
From 1976 — the year the library was built — through last year, circulation more than tripled to 856,918 loaned items. The role of the public library has evolved over time but, as the population it serves and programs it offers have increased, its physical space has remained the same.
“I think a lot of people thought libraries would die with print going digital, but that hasn’t been the case,” Emily Anderson, a member of the Eau Claire City Council and the library’s board of trustees, told Leader-Telegram reporter Eric Lindquist. “Instead, libraries have found more ways to help people connect — through meetings, lectures, craft workshops.
“People still want that in-person connection. The library can become a physical, community space in a virtual world.”
Added Pamela Westby, library director, in regard to recently hiring a full-time social worker and implementing outreach programs to improve access: “The library is the one public space left that’s truly democratic.”
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The proposed $18.5 million project would add 30,000 square feet to the existing structure. Preliminary plans include a third floor, community room, revamped entrance and other amenities.
Nearly 200,000 stories call the library home in book, video and audio formats. As far as demand, the numbers speak for themselves:
• 21,206 library card holders in 2018.
• Customers engaged in 51,096 computer sessions.
• More than 1,200 visitors a day.
Such statistics back an excerpt from the report “Making Cities Stronger” by The Urban Institute and Urban Libraries Council: “Public libraries build a community’s capacity for economic activity and resiliency.”
Education, however, remains a top priority.
“I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough,” noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said. “My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library.”
Albert Einstein, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who developed the theory of relativity, is credited with a quote that puts it more plainly: “The only thing that you absolutely have to know is the location of the library.”
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Donor fatigue is a concern for those leading the library expansion effort. Several local projects of late have been helped by private fundraising, and the library campaign is seeking $7 million from donors.
“Our community has been asked to do a lot,” Carol Gabler, a capital campaign co-chair, told Lindquist, “but I look at how people stepped forward for the Pablo Center and other things, and I’m confident people will be willing to give something again.”
“I do think this is a community where residents are really passionate about being a community that invests in our people, and this library expansion is a way to invest in one another,” she said.
A revamped library also would be a welcome addition to a city center that’s seen a remarkable resurgence in recent years.
“Our downtown is so exciting now,” Gabler said, “and enhancing our library will just make downtown, and our whole community, even better.”
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor